In Defense of Class Warfare

Critics deride the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street alike as motivated by envy. Is that such a bad thing?

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

"It's petty envy, pure and simple." That's Elias Isquith's assessment of what motivates the Tea Party—a simmering rage that someone, somewhere, has more than you do. As John Kramer says, the movement insists, "we must punish success; we must organize envy"—though the movement Kramer is referring to isn't the Tea Party, but Occupy Wall Street.

It's not a surprise that left and right are united in sneering at the envy of the other guy. Some vices have a patina of glamour. Hate has an appealing purity; lust the edgy excitement of forbidden pleasure; gluttony at least means you're eating well. With each of these, to sin is to indulge and to take; you can revel in the strength of your iniquity.

Envy, on the other hand, is the sin of the weak and pitiful. There is only "petty" envy, because those who envy are always small. To envy is to show that, deep in that heart you are eating out, you think the other guy is better than you. When, as Isquith says, the Tea Party launches its three-minute hate against the Harvard-educated, son-of-an-economist Josh Barro, it shows they think that Harvard-educated, son-of-an-economist Josh Barro has something they covet. If hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue, envy is the secret homage the Tea Partiers pay to the pointy-headed elites they claim to loathe.

Is envy always bad, though? Is it really wrong to resent those pointy-headed, Harvard-educated sons of economists? Pointy-headed elites and their reassurances trashed our financial sector back in 2008. The country still hasn't recovered, but children of those economists are, through the miracle of class, still doing fine, thanks. If ever there were a time to mistrust the machinations of elites, this seems like it would be it. If ever there were a time to tremble when elites like Josh Barro say the government knows best, now would be such a time, in the wake of a massive elite-led economic catastrophe enabled by a government that clearly didn't have the least idea what it was doing.

The exact economic class of Tea Party members is a matter of some dispute. Mike Lofgren makes a persuasive case, though, that the Tea Party is drawn from a lower-middle class constituency desperate to hold on to what it has. Members of the movement are, Lofgren says, "predominately white, lower-middle-class Americans who feel "disrespected" because the main currents of American life, economically, demographically and culturally, are passing them by." They fear loss of status and place. Their lives, they think, are growing smaller. They look at Josh Barro or, for that matter, President Obama, and see elites insulated from the uncertainty they face every day. And so they envy.

Lofgren points out that Tea Party policy goals have shifted away from anything the economy and toward familiar cultural-conservative religious touchstones. Still, what brought the movement to a boil in 2010 was the economic crisis, providing the visceral fear of change that coalesced around health care and other issues. The Tea Party, then, gained force because folks like Bill Clinton and Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke carefully and royally messed up in the service of stupidity and greed over more than a decade. We still have the Tea Party around because those elites and their successors haven't been able to clean up the mess that resulted. People are freaked out and angry, and they look around them and they see that the class of people who screwed them over, the Harvard grads and the sons of economists, are by and large doing quite well, thanks. Which makes them—and for that matter, me—bitter.

This isn’t a defense of the Tea Party. Most of its policy goals and tactics—government shutdowns, gutting health care, and on and on—seem expressly designed to make things worse, not better. Lower-middle-class fear of falling is in this case, as so often in the U.S., inextricably linked with the ugliest kind of racist paranoia, as those near the bottom of the economic ladder desperately step down on immigrants and people of color and anybody else they fear might be coming up to replace them from below.

But while what the Tea Party does with their envy may be misguided, the envy itself—the bitterness and the rage—aren't wrong. They're right. You should be bitter and enraged and, yes, envious and resentful when you've been screwed over. Envy isn't just a sign of weakness; it's a recognition of injustice, and of the fact that those elites really do have it better in an economy where inequity keeps rising and the middle class is squeezed out of existence.

If Tea Party envy is an implicit acknowledgement of weakness, the drumbeat of elite insults directed at the movement—the charges of stupidity, insanity, and envy—often seem like a smug assertion of power and status, a reminder that, no matter how flagrantly you are screwed over, your overlords never have to take your anger seriously.